Saturday, July 31, 2010
I started waiting tables to make some extra money this summer. This is the third time I have done this in my life and while I don't mind it, I am constantly surprised at people's behavior and common human decency when they go out. Though most of this is fictional there are many snippets of dialogue that were taken from actual exchanges that I have encountered. So as I would tell my tables...enjoy.
Audrey was told when she clocked in that she would be in “smoking fireplace”. That was the section in the restaurant that once had been the smoking section back when places of dining permitted smokers to puff away while they ate. And it was also by the non-working fireplace. She was happy to at least be inside on the sweltering 95-degree day as opposed to the back patio area, which just housed some wooden picnic tables and a cement fountain that never worked and smelled of mildew. The air conditioning was definitely a perk. As Audrey tied her black apron around her waist a Frank Sinatra song hummed throughout the restaurant. She had memorized the restaurant’s Rat Pack playlist during her first week of work and now on her third week she was already losing her mind with its repetition.
She took the job waiting tables because it offered her a mindless way to make some money. That seemed appealing at the time. She had made the mistake before to take on temp office work, thinking that would be a great way to pay the bills while she worked on her graphic novel. But every temporary assignment she took always evolved into a full-time position that came with the title of full time corporate administrative puppet. And with that title came no time in which she could pursue what she wanted to do, which was sit in her dark quiet room with her black ink pen and her sketch book and delve into her world of ghosts and the underworld in which they live. So she quit. No more nine to five.
Two days later she interviewed and was offered a job on the spot at Nino’s, a local Italian restaurant in the strip mall. It was owned by the father, run by the son and oversaw by the wife/mother. It was a testament to why families should not go into business together. Tempers flared, voices screamed and cooking utensils flew around the hot box of a kitchen. That’s why Audrey opted to pass her time standing by the bar.
Phillip the young, tight tee shirt wearing, tattooed bartender was a nephew of the owners. He too kept to himself and in that, Audrey and he found a common ground. A peaceful and silent common ground by the bar.
“Barb wants you to take table 23,” Phillip told Audrey as he polished the wine glass.
“That’s in “smoking piano”. Jeff has that section tonight,” Audrey said as she tore at her cuticle.
“Oh, Jeff called off,” Phillip said picking away at some crusty bits that remained on the outside of the glass. “The fucking dishwasher sucks.”
“That job sucks,” said Audrey as she weakly defended the quiet Mexican man who was newer than she was.
“Not Eusabio. The machine. It’s ancient and Dominick is too cheap to buy a new one.”
“Is he sick?” Audrey asked.
“No. Jeff. Why’d he call in?”
“Oh. I don’t know. Barb answered and she never tells me shit so I don’t ask.”
“Great,” Audrey said as she pulled out her pen, “that means I’m here until close.”
“Welcome to my world,” smiled Phillip still picking off stuck bits of food from the glass.
Audrey looked at her reflection in the sepia tinted mirror and gave herself a once over and shrugged at herself as she ventured to table 23. It was a four-top that sat in front of a huge portrait of the owner, Dominick and his wife Barb. Audrey found it grotesque. Barb was wearing a low-cut black evening gown and stood behind Dominick who sat in a throne-like chair, his fat stomach bulging over his belt, not allowing him to close his legs. All Audrey could look at was his crotch and her sagging cleavage. Enjoy your meal, she thought to herself.
Audrey gave a wink to Miguel who had just filled their water glasses and dropped off the fresh, warm bread, which she knew to be previously frozen then thawed and now slightly warmed bread. Everything in the restaurant was previously frozen. It wasn’t that Dominick and his son Luca couldn’t cook, they could. It was that they were told by Barb that it would be more cost effective if they made huge batches of everything, froze it in one of the three freezers and just thawed it out and tossed it in the microwave. It was a strip mall after all, what more did people want?
Not much, Audrey answered to herself as she took a deep breath and advanced on the family of four. The daughters were pushed up against the dingy wallpapered wall, with their backs to the owner’s (un) likeness. The mom was sitting with her head down listening intently as one of the girls read the menu to her in a high nasally voice. The dad was still adjusting into the too small chair, or rather the normal sized chair that was too small for this too large man. Audrey had a bad feeling about them already.
“Hi. I just wanted to stop by and tell you about our specials this evening,” she said as believable as possible. The specials had been over two weeks old and there was nothing special about them except the obscene amount they charged for the bullshit dishes. Loads of creamy sauces to hide the lack of freshness.
Everyone but the mother looked up at her. They stared at Audrey with bored expectation in their faces. They weren’t going to order the specials and they didn’t want to hear about the specials but they were going to let her tell them all about them in complete disinterest. Audrey smiled. No one reciprocated.
“Okay then, the fish of the day is a baked salmon topped with diced tomatoes, green peppers and mushrooms and sautéed in white wine, garlic and olive oil and served over a bed of fettuccini or no, it’s a linguini, spinach. Um, the next special we have tonight,” she continued as the father rolled his eyes and yawned with his large mouth uncovered, “is pasta with…chicken.”
She made the executive decision that they didn’t deserve to hear any more about the chicken special and she sure as hell wasn’t going to mention the pork chop or veal dishes. She nodded and turned to leave.
“Hey, wait!” said a female voice at the table. Audrey turned around blank faced. “Are your steaks good?”
“Danica, don’t ask that. What’s she going to say? ‘No the steaks suck balls?’” said another female at the table.
“I wasn’t talking to you, mom, I was talking to her,” and the nasally voiced girl, who was clearly the youngest of the daughters looked directly at Audrey and continued talking holding her hand, palm up, in front of her mother’s face as if to fend off any more interruptions. “So. Are your steaks good? I mean really good. Because if I am going to eat red meat it better be really, really good. So is it good?”
Now all the faces at the table looked up at Audrey who was stunned at the brazenness of what was clearly no more than a twelve-year-old girl.
“A lot of people order them,” Audrey said.
“See, mom, “ the young mouth said taking her hand down from in front of her mother’s face, “she didn’t say they were good.” She looked back to Audrey and said, “Thank you, we’ll need a few minutes,” and looked back down at the menu.
Audrey tried once more to remove herself from table 23 and turned.
“Hey, wait,” said the father who was still adjusting in his seat, “we’re going to want wine for the table. Give us a carafe of the house Chianti. Four glasses.”
“Great, I’ll just need to see some ID, “ Audrey said.
“You need to see my ID?!” said the father, immediately insulted.
“Un, no, sir. I’ll just need it for the two young ladies,” she said nodding to the perfectly French-manicured tweens.
“I told you they would ask for it dad,” said the other daughter who seemed to be sending the longest text message in the world.
The father leaned unsuccessfully towards Audrey in mock confidentiality and winked at her. “Come on, they’re with us. It’s not like they’re going to be driving.”
Audrey pulled away, avoiding the sourness that came out of his mouth and pointed to the sign behind the bar that read, “We Card,” and shrugged.
The father snapped up and said too loudly, “Well, girls you can’t say your dear ole dad didn’t try,” and without looking at Audrey said, “Go get the wine.”
Audrey’s feet remained frozen and she felt her mouth gape open in awe. Slowly she walked to the bar and ordered the wine from Phillip.
“She can’t be more than twelve,” he said eyeing the family, “and the other is no more than fifteen.”
“I know, “ Audrey said, masking her bewildered face from the four-top. “I’m going to kill Jeff when I see him next. I don’t want to go back over there. I think there is something rotting in the father’s stomach. His breath smells like a sewer…that vomited.”
“Good luck,” he said and placed the wine-filled carafe and two wine glasses in front of her. Bits of crusty food debris were on the glasses. He winked. She smiled.
Inside the kitchen, Mexican music blared as the line cooks, food runners and bussers yelled at one another in their native tongue. From the outside it looked and sounded like complete chaos but internally it was an intricate dance. A culinary Pasodoble. Beyond all the noise, there stood a quiet man looking up at the only window in the fluorescent-lit kitchen. This was Eusabio. He had moved to America only three months ago and landed this job through a cousin of a cousin’s friend. They asked if he had any dishwashing experience and he nodded his head, like his cousin had instructed him to do, even though he had no idea to what he was agreeing. He spoke no English. Nada.
His eyes were fixed upon the clouds that were floating by through the dingy pane of glass. Images of his home in Mexico and his mother and sisters floated in his mind. He hadn’t wanted to come to this country but they needed him to do this. They needed him to send them money so they could keep their house and continue to keep all of them together. Eusabio’s father passed only six months earlier. A heart attack took the fifty-five year old man as he walked down the stairs of his home. Eusabio had heard the large man fall down the stairs and was the one who found him. He knew immediately that he was dead but put a pillow under his head and held his hand until the doctor arrived. Eusabio was thankful that his mother was at the store with his sisters. They shouldn’t see this, he thought to himself, as his father’s bodily fluids started to excrete.
So thrust into the big city to work in the bowels of an Italian kitchen was to be his fate. He wasn’t a schooled man; in fact, some in his town had referred to him as a simple boy. And he was. He preferred the world in his head to the one in front of him and often got lost in his own thoughts.
“Eusabio!” yelled a voice that snapped the 32 year-old back into reality. “Get to work. We are backing up on dishes already and we just started dinner. Faster. Faster.”
This exchange was spoken in Spanish so Eusabio understood, nodded and loaded up the next round of plates. He pushed them into the Horcon Ecolux 1290 dishwasher and pushed the red button. Not the green button. Or was it the green button and not the red. Red usually meant stop, so probably the green. He pressed the green and the steel window opened like a mouth ready to swallow the ceramic discs. Gently he closed the hatch and the red light turned on. Eusabio panicked. Did he do something wrong. The machine made a horrible noise. He looked around but no one seemed to notice.
The hatch was locked. Eusabio waited it out. It was taking a long time for the dishes to clean, he thought. Does it usually take this long? Should I ask someone? Should I press the red button? The machine belted out another loud screech and Eusabio pushed the red button. The machine stopped. The silence of the machine silenced the rest of the kitchen. Oh shit. Mierda.
“What the fuck happened to the dishwasher?” yelled Miguel running over to Eusabio. “What did you do?”
“I pushed the red button.”
“I told you NOT to push that button. The one thing I told you not to do,” Miguel screamed. “Go to the sinks. You’ll have to wash by hand.”
“Maybe if we press the green button, it will turn back on,” he suggested.
“Yeah, I guess that might work if this machine wasn’t a hundred fucking years old. Just get to the sinks and wash the damn dishes. Go!”
Eusabio could feel the blood rush to his cheeks and wanted to cry. He promised his mother he wouldn’t cry. Other people wouldn’t understand his softness she told him. She let him cry and would hold him to her as she stroked his hair and sang softly in his ear. His mother was far away. He was alone. He would wash the dishes.
Audrey walked up to table 23 with the carafe of wine and two glasses. She wanted to get this table turned quickly. Usually she didn’t care if people sat in her section all night but this table had some bad energy. As she poured the wine she heard the father tell the daughter sitting next to him, “I’ll let you help me drink mine,” and then he winked pushing the glass closer to her. Audrey remained stone-faced. The other daughter was still reading the menu to the mother who looked up at Audrey and said, “I forgot my damn glasses.” The daughter however didn’t stop listing off the food selections but plowed ahead in a monotonous nasal voice.
“Are you ready to order or do you need a few more moments?” Audrey asked.
“Mom, do you know or do you want me to keep going on?” asked the twelve-year-old whose phone was vibrating. “Hold on,” she said as she checked her pink bedazzled phone.
Audrey stood there as the four of them talked over the other trying to come to a consensus of whether they were ready or not until the father finally said, “I don’t want her to go away ‘cause who knows when she’ll be back and I’m hungry.” Audrey was upwind of the sour mouth again and so she adjusted away from the large man.
“I’ll have the spaghetti and meatballs,” he said as he thrust the cumbersome menu in Audrey’s face, knocking her off balance. “And I’ll have a side of that grilled asparagus but I want the appetizer version with the cheese and tell them not to burn it. Last time they burnt the shit out of it.”
“Can you tell me the specials again,” said the vision-impaired mother.
Audrey rattled them off one more time for the mostly disinterested audience though the mother seemed to be hanging on every word as if she was tasting the words as Audrey spoke them.
“Oh, they all sound so good,” she said with her eyes closed, obviously putting a lot of thought into this decision. “Oh I just had fish for lunch and the cream in the chicken might be too rich. Oh God, I guess…”
“Order you dinner already, “ barked the dad.
“Mom! Order something! We’re hungry!” said the young girl still texting to who might have been her sister sitting next to her.
“Alright already. I’m sorry. I will just have the spaghetti and meatballs I guess,” she decided and pushed her menu towards Audrey’s general direction and dove back into the bread.
Audrey stood there waiting for one of the girls to pipe in their order but both were engrossed in their phones. “And what can I get for you?” she asked to the general area of where they were sitting hoping to spur one of them on to speak.
“Put those down and order,” the dad said as he pulled the phone away from the youngest.
“Okay! God!” blared the twelve-year-old. “I want the spaghetti and meatballs, but I don’t want spaghetti. I want capellini and I want the sauce on the side. Oh and I want the meatballs with the sauce, not on the pasta. Do you have that?”
“Plain spaghetti,” Audrey started.
“Capellini, I meant, and sauce and meatballs on the side. Next?” she asked ready to get the hell away from these rotten people.
“Wait,” said the young girl snapping her fingers at Audrey.
Audrey stood there waiting. And waiting. The young girl stared at the menu dragging her fingernail up and down the large menu skimming it one last time. Finally, after what felt to Audrey like five minutes, the twelve-year-old declared, “I changed my mind. I want spaghetti.”
Jotting down the change on her pad of paper, Audrey moved her attention to the other sister. How the light was hitting her hair, Audrey could see all of the highlights this girl had in her thick mane of hair. She was what People magazine would call dirty dusty beach blonde, probably inspired by some character on “The Hills”. It was perfectly blown-dry and carefully draped over her right shoulder like a curtain.
The older daughter didn’t look up and mumbled something at Audrey that she couldn’t decipher. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” Audrey said gently.
The girl laid the phone down and looked coolly at Audrey and said very slowly, “I. Will. Have. The. Same.” She then picked up her phone as her head tilted back down and to the side so to readjust the hair.
Audrey couldn’t stop herself, “I’m sorry, do mean the same as your sister with the sauce on the side or the same as just spaghetti and meatballs?”
The girl once again didn’t look up from her phone and mumbled something into the air that Audrey couldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry, I am having a hard time hearing you.”
The girl looked up directly at Audrey and yelled, “Spaghetti and meatballs!”
Everyone in the restaurant turned and stared.
The girl smirked went back to her phone as the rest of her family continued to sop their bread in the cheese soaked oil.
“Great,” Audrey said and was forced to reach across the table to retrieve the menus that neither girl could hand to her. Her reach almost caused the carafe to tip over which made the father snap his head in her direction and dismiss her with his hand. Walking away, out of the corner of her eye she saw the older daughter take a drink of the wine.
At the bar, Phillip was in the middle of a conversation with “the ladies.” Two local women always spent their Saturday night at Nino’s saddled up to the bar. The older one had a slightly longer version of what was called the Dorothy Hamill hairdo. She wore bright pink elastic waisted pants that were pulled up just that little bit too high which made them flood at the bottom. Her cardigan was buttoned to the top button and her shoes were the sensible white-laced orthopedic variety. A devastatingly real-life spinster.
Her lady friend was more of the curiosity and it wasn’t just because she was a little person. She came in with a too large tee shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks and short pants that you couldn’t quite see because the shirt was so long. Unlike her clean-coiffed friend, her hair looked like it was dipped into a fryer and then dried in a blender. It was a mess and so dry it probably could crack in half like a piece of uncooked capellini, no spaghetti. She never smiled and spoke too loudly and because her one eye was lazy no on could tell who was supposed to be her target. Phillip took most of the brunt but he always won her over by the end of the night or by the end of the gin and tonics.
Phillip liked to test different conspiracy theories on them and they licked it up. They were hungry for the attention and they fought for his. UFO’s, government cover-ups and the dreaded 2012. Audrey bit her tongue when she overheard these discussions. 2012 to her was the next Y2K. Nothing was going to happen. But the ladies came in armed and ready to bounce their own paranoid thoughts off of Phillip in hopes of winning him over. No one knew if the two of them were friends or lovers or lesbians who were only friends or just a-sexual human beings who forgot that part existed.
A loud crash came from the kitchen. Everyone’s head turned in the general direction of the loud din. The smaller of the two ladies almost fell off her barstool. Audrey walked toward the kitchen and peered in the window to see what was happening.
Eusabio was on all fours picking up the pieces of glass that used to be Nino’s stemware. He tripped on the uneven mats that covered the greasy floor. Audrey had tripped over the same mats countless times but she never had to carry a tub overflowing with fragile glasses so high it obscured your vision. Eusabio’s face was bright red and Dominick stood over him yelling at him while Miguel translated the yelling with more yelling, only in a different language.
Audrey backed away from the kitchen swinging door and went back to her safe place, hidden from view from her table. She could see them but they couldn’t see her. She saw both girls now sipping from their parents’ glass. Audrey didn’t give a shit if they drank the entire carafe but they were so entitled and the dad was such a blowhard that it got under her skin. She hated when she let people like that bother her. And who knows maybe they were really nice and…no, she said to herself, they were assholes. Some people just were.
Audrey didn’t notice the vertically challenged woman at the bar go to the restroom but did see that a man had moved in and was talking the other woman’s ear off. His voice droned on about the stock market. The bowl-cut woman sat there, her head down, politely not saying a word allowing this new, foreign, brash male energy to continue. Audrey had seen him in the bar before. He was a regular as well but he usually came in with “the guys”. Tonight it looked like he was alone and very drunk. He was that sloppy drunk, that drunk when your eye’s are half-way closed and your words are impossibly slurred and your voice is too loud and your breath is a hot furnace of decomposing alcohol and stomach lining. He looked like a college professor with his throwback horned rimmed glasses and his pleated khaki pants and his boring button-down blue shirt. A drunk and lecherous college professor. Audrey had some experience with those herself so she continued to watch.
The little lady sauntered back up to the bar but went unnoticed by the man who continued on his diatribe. She stood there looking up at him with a look of sheer fury. He was standing around her seat making it impossible for her to sit down. And not only was he in her space, he didn’t even see her to notice his grave mistake. Audrey couldn’t take her eyes off of what was happening. She knew that the man in his drunken state didn’t have all his senses about him and even if he did, she was, well, really, really small. Less than four feet small and she was in his blind spot.
Phillip detected the situation that was brewing so he went over to the gentleman and asked him to move over so the little lady could sit back down in her seat. The drunk man looked around and once again missed seeing the small woman who was now drunk herself. The most interesting person in all of this, Audrey thought, was the taller one, who never said a word. She kept her head politely down as if shying away from someone who was getting ready to hit her. The little lady finally pulled on the guy’s pants and told him to move. The man stumbled away and apologized as he watched the little woman climb back up on her stool. It was like watching a child climb onto a jungle gym as she used the stool next to it to hoist her self to one level and then counter that so she was back on her own stool. She had done that maneuver more than once.
When she was situated, the man leaned towards her and held out his hand. She scowled at the hand before her and turned to her lady friend and said, “Who the hell is this?”
The man once again offered his hand to her and slurred, “My name is Michael.” He was hoping for a truce or at least another ear for his opinions on the recession.
The little lady with her brows furrowed and a look of disdain on her face turned away from the man yet again and asked, “Who the hell is this asshole?!”
Audrey laughed out loud. All eyes at the bar were now on her and she smiled, bowed her head down and walked back into full view of her table. Bad move. Once they saw her they all held up an empty glass or carafe or breadbasket and beckoned her over with their various hand gestures. There was snapping, clapping, waving and palms facing upward as the fingers snapped downward as if summoning a dog. As they all rattled on about wanted more wine and free refills and some of that fresh warm bread, Audrey silently gathered all the empties and walked away leaving them with a vague hint of a smile. She was no longer capable of feigning any kind of interest in these people.
Audrey walked back into the kitchen to dump the glasses in the busser’s tub. It was already on the way to the dishwasher so she walked the glasses back herself. Everything looked like it was going smoother for Eusabio. He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back. And then what happened next happened so fast that even now Audrey thinks back and wonders if it even happened at all.
Luca, the chef/son, called over to Eusabio and told him to grab a tray of cooked pasta from the table by him and to bring it over. The kitchen was busy and all heads were down in their sauté pans and grills and fryers. No one was paying attention to Eusabio who only had to bring the aluminum tray of pre-cooked spaghetti to the guys in the next room, but the mats were uneven. The mats were uneven and the tray was flimsy and it bent when Eusabio tripped and the pasta fell into the second sink, the sink filled with water and sanitizer #2. Eusabio looked at me horrified. He would be fired. So Audrey without words ran to the sink and they both, thinking the same thing pulled the pasta out of the water, threw it into a nearby colander and rinsed it. And rinsed it. And rinsed it. They could not smell any cleaner on the pasta. They looked at one another and Audrey took the pan from Eusabio and took it to Luca.
Luca dumped the spaghetti in the boiling water for a few seconds to warm it up and then threw it on the plates, ladled sauce over the pasta (except for the one that didn’t want sauce on it) and finally placed the meatballs on top of the steaming mound of noodles. The four orders of spaghetti and meatballs were up, they were ready to be taken to table 23. Miguel grabbed the entrees, put spoons on the plates and took them out to the four-top. Audrey looked over her shoulder at Eusabio and gently smiled and nodded, sealing their pact and walked to the table. She offered each of them freshly grated Parmesan cheese, brought them their drinks, and smiled as she told them to enjoy their meal. She genuinely smiled and turned around and hid.
She stared at the table as each of them took that first bite of their meal. They all chewed and chewed and then swallowed. In Audrey’s mind she could only imagine them each grasping at their throats and choking as blood spurted out of their now burned and raw esophagi from the dish sanitizer. She would lose her job, hell, she would go to jail for manslaughter. Her life was over. She looked up at the kitchen swinging door window and there was Eusabio’s face looking at the table as well and she guessed thinking the same thing that she was.
Those first few bites were agonizing to watch. Audrey was sweating and Eusabio’s face was ashen. They couldn’t take their eyes off of table 23. By the third and fourth bites, Audrey noticed only one thing. They were laughing and talking and seeming to be enjoying their meals. No one was face down in his or her plate. No one was bleeding from his or her eyes. They were okay. They were more than okay. They cleaned their plates. Audrey laughed to herself in disbelief and looked up at the kitchen door window. Eusabio was gone. She was sure he was summoned back to the scene of the crime to disinfect some more plates.
She gathered their dishes and took them into the kitchen, straight back to Eusabio and placed them on the counter next to the sink. He smiled and bowed his head to her in understanding and in thanks. She walked back out to the table and dropped off the check. The dad pulled out a wad of cash and stuffed a few large bills inside the check folder and told Audrey to keep the change. As the family got up to leave the younger daughter put her hand into her father’s hand and looked like the twelve-year old that she was.
“Who the hell were those assholes?” asked the small miserable woman sucking down her forth gin and tonic. Phillip shrugged while he continued to wipe down the bar.
“I think I want to go now,” said the taller lady as she stood up and waited for her friend, lover, or other to finish her drink. She just stood there not saying a word staring at the glass until the woman slurped it down.
It was the first time Audrey heard her speak more than her drink order. She reminded Audrey of a schoolmarm zombie, a walking dead old maid with limited verbal skills. She would have to sketch that out so she could include her into her family of morbid curiosities in her graphic novel. Maybe this job wasn’t so useless. It seemed all the people who came into this strip mall restaurant were some sort of demon or monster, grotesque and mutilated, if not physically then emotionally and/or psychologically.
After watching the ladies leave she walked back to the computer to close the tab for table 23. She counted the large bills and after recounting, it seemed that the father had left her a 40% tip. No one had ever left her that kind of tip. Not in this kind of place. If they were lovely people maybe she would have thought their monetary gesture was kind but she didn’t detect kindness. There was something vulgar about it. But she was done with table 23. With that Audrey walked into the kitchen and walked back to the Horcon Ecolux 1290 and handed the entire gratuity to Eusabio. He smiled at Audrey, shyly took the wad of cash and put it in his pocket. The next day Eusabio put the money in an envelope and mailed it to his mother.